Monday, February 14, 2011

The Grotesque and Arabesque Stella Lewis (Part Two)

The Lewis divorce was also notable for a cameo appearance by none other than Elizabeth F. Ellet, in the role of espionage agent. According to Mrs. Lewis, while her divorce was in progress, Ellet paid a friendly call on her. Mrs. Lewis left to order them lunch, and wound up being absent for about half an hour. After the two women dined and Mrs. Ellet had left, Mrs. Lewis discovered that her desk had been ransacked and that a publisher's letter which "would have been worth $600" to her had vanished. Mrs. Lewis claimed that Mrs. Ellet, who was "in the pay" of Stella's estranged husband, stole it on his behalf. (When recounting the story to John H. Ingram, she snarled, "I blame myself only, for having received such a viper after all the things I had heard of her!") Mrs. Lewis never explained exactly what this letter was, why it was so valuable, or how and why Mrs. Ellet was enlisted for this bit of burglary, so this episode's exact implications are unknown. However, the combination of Stella Lewis, Elizabeth Ellet, divorce intrigue, and Purloined Letters in the same anecdote presents a sort of Poean Perfect Storm of sleaze that practically takes one's breath away.

Edgar Allan Poe and StellaMrs. Lewis may have figured in another story involving letters. Maria Clemm once stated that soon after Poe's death, Rufus W. Griswold offered her a large sum of money for letters a certain literary lady had written Poe. She claimed she destroyed them instead. Most Poe biographers assume--on absolutely no evidence--that the "lady" in question was Frances S. Osgood, (even though that would contradict Sarah Helen Whitman's story--which they also blindly accept--that in 1846 a delegation of ladies obtained Osgood's letters from Poe.) Ingram, however, thought otherwise. He confided to Whitman that, judging by what he heard from others, the letters were not Osgood's, but those of Mrs. Lewis. Ingram hinted that Griswold had hoped to obtain them in order to subject the wealthy woman to a little casual blackmail. A remarkable sidelight on the literary society of the time. (A footnote: Ingram may have been correct, but my own suspicion is that what Griswold sought were the mysterious, scandal-igniting letters Poe claimed Elizabeth F. Ellet had written him. At that time, Ellet and Griswold were locked in a remarkably vicious personal war--which the lady was winning handily--and he undoubtedly felt her letters, whatever they contained, would be life-saving ammunition.)

After her divorce, Mrs. Lewis lived a solitary life, mostly in England and the Continent. By all accounts, she had a genius for inspiring loathing, and Ingram, who saw much of her when she lived in London, described her as a very lonely and pathetic--and dreadful--woman whom he both pitied and detested. (He also occasionally implied that she was not entirely sane.) Before she died in 1880, Mrs. Lewis spent most of her last years writing Ingram over a hundred letters desperately trying to convince him of her importance in Poe's life. (He came to the conclusion that she did not "evince much real knowledge of the man.") Ingram later rewarded her efforts at self-glorification by writing a cruelly hilarious article for the July 1907 "Albany Review" entitled "Edgar Allan Poe and 'Stella'" where he dismissed her as one of the many "harpies" who helped make Poe's last years a misery.

Mrs. Lewis ranks among the worst of the many bizarre figures in Poe's history. (And considering that includes a cast of characters such as Sarah Helen Whitman, Frances S. Osgood, Annie Richmond, Rufus W. Griswold, Thomas Dunn English, Marie Louise Houghton, Thomas Holley Chivers, et al, that is a fairly frightening thought.) Poe was never truly close to anyone other than his wife and his mother-in-law, but there is a grim insincerity to his "friendship" with Mrs. Lewis that is quite depressing. In print and to others, his attitude towards Stella was warm, even effusive, and he was sincerely grateful for what he naively believed was her "kindness" to Mrs. Clemm. In truth, however, the sight of her evidently made him ill, and (according to Mrs. Clemm) she knew it. (Considering his similar encomiums to Frances Osgood, one is reminded of Hiram Fuller's cryptic remark that Poe's praise was as sinister as his abuse.)

As for Mrs. Lewis' feelings, it is quite clear that she never had any, for Poe or anyone else. When Poe was alive, she determinedly pried what she could out of him, for the sake of her literary ambitions. Immediately after his death, when Griswold's star was in the ascendant, she unblushingly transferred her loyalties to him. In 1853, she wrote that august biographer, "Nothing has ever given me so much insight into Mr. Poe's real character as his letters to you, which are published in this third volume. They will not fail to convince the public of the injustice of [George R.] Graham's and [John] Neal's articles." (It is doubtful she would have written any differently if she had known these letters were forgeries.) She continued, "I have ceased to correspond with Mrs. Clemm on account of her finding so much fault, and those articles of Graham's and Neal's. I cannot endure ingratitude. I have felt and do feel that you have performed a noble and disinterested part towards Mr. Poe in the editing of his works."

In later years, after Griswold was dead and his slanders of Poe discredited, she again did a 180-degree-spin any Olympic figure skater would envy. Eager to claim her share of Poe's burgeoning legend, she published a series of quite nauseating sonnets commemorating their "friendship," instructed everyone within earshot about the many kind services she had done him, and earnestly told Ingram that the late poet was "an angel," who had been cruelly defamed. (Unfortunately for her, Ingram lived long enough to see her correspondence with Griswold in print.)

Probably the clearest view of Mrs. Lewis' character and "friendship" with Poe comes through a letter of hers to an acquaintance in 1858. In the course of again asserting that Poe had asked her to write his life story, she managed, fittingly, to out-Griswold Griswold. She wrote:

"If anyone else should write it [Poe's life] do not permit the name of that old woman who calls herself his mother-in-law to appear in it. I have heard that she is not his mother-in-law. That she was something else to him. Anyhow, I believe that she was the black cat of his life. And that she at last strangled him to death."

After quoting this passage, Poe's biographer Edward Wagenknecht wrote with telling terseness: "And what the woman writes about herself in the same letter is almost equally repulsive."

At the end, when Poe lay slowly dying in that pitiful hospital bed in Baltimore, it can be hoped that he consoled himself with the thought that at least he had finally seen the last of Stella Lewis.